totalitarianism

FistFrom an operational standpoint, there’s not a lot of difference between totalitarianism of the left and totalitarianism of the right. The look, sound and function much the same. It’s the underlying ideology that’s different – and generally, how they come to power is different.

In general, a fascist government will rise from within – it will come up organically, working through established (and generally legal) methods to gain influence and positions of power, then act (again, through generally legal means) to change the system to reinforce its own power.

The typical socialist/communist government takes power with a revolution – it may start with a movement, but in general, the mechanism of control comes through a violent (and perhaps even popular) uprising that wipes out the old regime and replaces it completely. It then establishes a new system, one that is designed at reinforcing its own power and – ironically – preventing any new rebellion.

Let’s look at each of these systems/methods in turn, starting with fascism.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aesop gives us a parable that helps define the term fascism – his story The Bundle of Sticks. Gather up a bundle of sticks and tie them together. Now try to break them. Doesn’t work, does it? Untie the bundle and try breaking the sticks one at a time. Super easy to do, right? That idea carried through to Roman times, where that developed into something called a fasces, rods tied around an axe handle – a symbol of legal power in the Empire that represented punishment (being beaten with the rods or executed with the axe). Fasces –> fascismo –> fascism.

Like many forms of government, there are many types of fascism. We tend to associate fascism with Benito Mussolini/Italy & Adolf Hitler/Germany in the 1920s-40s, but the truth is nearly every western nation – including the United States – had fascist movements in that time period and many of them were politically powerful. Following the collapse of most fascist movements at the end of World War Two, Portugal & Spain managed to maintain their fascist governments into the 1970s under Antonio Salazar & Francisco Franco, respectively. (You could, however, argue that radical elements of the Catholic church co-opted Franco’s fascism, marginalizing it, but that would be a topic for a separate post.)

Fascism is easy to peg as radically right on the political spectrum. Fascism is socially very conservative and should be considered anti-egalitarian, as in “under fascism there is no such thing as equality”. It derives a lot of its inspiration from ultra-conservative ideologies such as nationalism and romanticism and as such, can be considered as a movement that wants to purge modernism and egalitarianism from all aspects of society. It is the ultimate backward-looking socio-political ideology and idealizes the “good old days” when we (whoever “we” are) all spoke the same language, practiced the same religion, celebrated the same heroes and obeyed the same leaders.

Because of its idealization of the “good old days” when we all followed the same rules, a fascist movement will not take the form of a traditional armed revolution. Instead, fascists will generally work from within the system to reach positions of power and influence, THEN change the system to better suit its ideology. Most fascist leaders – such as the aforementioned Mussolini and Hitler – achieve positions of power through completely legitimate (if unduly influenced) processes such as appointment (Hitler) or election (Mussolini). Once in power, though, the fascist leader will drop the pretense of democracy and start altering laws and processes to ensure that fascism is the only legal political system, thereby cementing its power and influence and marginalizing all other political ideas and practices. Look up the Acerbo Law (Italy) and the Enabling Act (Germany) to see how that works.

The point here is that fascism works from within to get power, then reorganizes the way power is held to ensure nobody else can have any power. That’s not a revolution.  It starts with people saying “Remember how things used to be? Everything was so much better then & we should go back to that simpler way of life” and ends with “Thanks for electing/appointing me President/Prime Minister/Chancellor, now do what I say or I’ll have you executed.”

Socialism, then, and its more sinister sister Communism, are ideologies of the left. To gain power, a true Socialist movement will foment a popular uprising, which we commonly refer to as a revolution. Many of these ideologies are based in Marxism. Marxism is a very complicated socio-political theory, but it can be distilled down to some basic points.

1. There are two types of people – Capitalists, who own everything, and Workers, who own nothing.
2. The economy functions due to the transaction between Capitalists and Workers – the Capitalist pays wages to the Worker in exchange for his time, which is spent laboring to produce something.
3. Products themselves have no inherent value; that value is attached through the labor of the Workers.
4. Profits made by Capitalists are an exploitation of the labor of the Workers.
5. Capitalists and Workers exist in a constant state of struggle because Capitalists always want higher profits while Workers always want higher wages. (This is called the Materialistic Dialectic and is where the term Class Struggle originates.)
6. The Class Struggle has driven past events and all economic systems can be described in similar terms.
7. Governments exist solely to enforce class differences.
8. To eliminate the Class Struggle and therefore the Capitalist/Worker conflict, the Workers must rise up in rebellion and destroy the Capitalists.
9. After the revolution, a temporary state/government must take over; this new government will enforce the will of the Workers over the will of the Capitalists. (Remember, all governments exist to enforce class differences!)
10. Once the Capitalists are destroyed, a classless society can exist – a society without social stratification, government or even nations.

It’s obviously more complicated than that, but those are the basics. As you can imagine, creating any kind of classless society would require great upheaval, as nearly the entire stretch of civilization has been constructed of class-based societies. This would necessitate a violent revolution, because the Capitalists will not willingly give up power.

It’s the stage between points 9 and 10 where most Communist governments exist, and they never move past it. The former Soviet Union was exactly this type of government – theoretically using its power to suppress the Capitalists by creating a series of nationalized industries that feed their profits to the state rather than to individual Capitalists. Yet they never managed to move on to step 10 and create a truly classless society – to its end, the USSR was a 2-class society – those with power and those without power.  Those with power grew rich and fat; those without power went hungry and drank vodka.

Many would say this is the true failing of China’s “Communist” government, because it embraces the power of profits and may never abandon the very system they claimed to have rebelled against. Chinese Communism is not true Socialism, but it is a system that exists as an totalitarian regime.  In the 21st century, China is every bit as capitalistic as the United States.

Anyway, to gain their status, Communists must eliminate the old regimes completely. It is for this reason that we classify Socialist/Communist governments as left or Liberal (in the abstract sense), because Liberalism is predicated on massive change – exactly the opposite of classical Conservatism, or rightist ideology, which requires the maintenance of the status quo.

Totalitarian governments are easily identified by some common markers – a (sometimes highly) charismatic dictator as leader, claims that political power stems from the people when we can all clearly see that it doesn’t, a highly organized official ideology, low levels of official corruption, just one political party, a total monopoly on mass communication, strict control of the military, rule enforced by terror (secret police) and a near-complete nationalization of industry in order to meticulously plan out the economy.

When you look at it in that light, the fascist government of Adolf Hitler isn’t terribly different from the communist government of Josef Stalin.  One big difference was that Hitler didn’t nationalize industry – he did, however, force German industry to do his bidding.

What brought this up is the rule of Bashar al-Assad, who runs Syria. His government isn’t totalitarian, it’s authoritarian. What’s the difference? Simple. Authoritarian governments are usually led by “regular” guys that aren’t particularly charismatic, but ironically rely on the “cult of personality” concept to maintain power. The dictator (and it will be a dictator in charge) gains power through his own effort (sometimes a coup or other seizure of power) and while some authoritarian governments allow elections – feigning democracy – the dictators tend to win those elections by unrealistic margins (99.9% of the vote for Saddam Hussein, for example). Authoritarian regimes are cut through with corruption, much of which is tolerated by the dictator because the people benefitting from that corruption get rich and are therefore interested in keeping the dictator in power. Authoritarian governments also will have an iron grip on the military and a high level of control over the economy, though they don’t typically nationalize everything, because then nobody that supports them gets rich. Last but not least, authoritarian rule isn’t based on any cohesive ideology other than “I want to be rich and powerful! I am the dictator! OBEY AND WORSHIP ME!!!”

As a side point, totalitarianism is generally accepted, while authoritarianism is nearly universally reviled. Nobody says the USSR’s government wasn’t legitimate, but everybody says Saddam Hussein had to go. The communists are allowed to rule Venezuela without any outside intervention, but Robert Mugabe (leader of Zimbabwe) has had sanctions leveled against him by the US & EU for decades.

Totalitarian regimes, when they do disappear, are usually eliminated by war. Authoritarian regimes are usually ended by the death of the dictator.

use of chemical weapons since 1961

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1961-71: US uses 2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid & 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (collectively known as Agent Orange) in Vietnam.  While technically classified as an herbicide and used as a defoliant (to kill plants & vegetation in large quantities), its effects on humans is widely documented & was well known, even in the 1960s.

UN reaction: NONE
3 June 1963: South Vietnamese soldiers attack Buddhist monks in Hue with concentrated, liquid tear gas. 70 people are hospitalized.

UN reaction: NONE
US reaction: threat to reduce/withdraw support for ruling regime; subsequent reduction of financial support from the South Vietnamese ruling regime leads to a US-supported coup

1980-88: Iraq uses a variety of chemical weapons against Iran in their 8-year war.

UN reaction: condemnation, investigation(s)
US reaction: no public reaction; privately allegedly supports the use of chemical weapons against Iran – this support is partially confirmed by recently declassified CIA documents. The CIA is also suspected of actively suppressing information & hindering UN investigators

16 March 1988: Iraq massacres Kurds in Halabja, killing up to 5,000 people & injuring up to 10,000 immediately. While there’s no official confirmation, from eyewitness accounts, it is believed the attack used mustard, sarin, tabun & VX gasses, as well as hydrogen cyanide, delivered by artillery, rockets & bombs.

UN reaction: NONE
US reaction: accuses Iran of perpetrating the attack

March-April 1991: Iraq uses chemical weapons of an undetermined nature, most likely mustard gas, against a combined Shia/Kurd uprising. Numbers of dead & wounded are not known but are estimated as being near 100,000. US forces in the region informally (and unofficially) confirm use of chemical weapons.

UN reaction: after investigation, denies chemical weapons were used
US reaction: President Bush issues stern warning
Delayed reaction, 2008: “Chemical” Ali Hassan al-Majid gets a 2nd death sentence for his participation in chemical weapon use against civilians, including this event.

15 May 2007: Terrorists set off a chlorine gas bomb in Abu Sayda, Iraq, killing about 50 people & wounding about another 50.

UN reaction: NONE
US reaction: denies use of chlorine in attack

21 August 2013: Syrian gov’t uses sarin gas, a potent nerve agent, in a rocket attack against rebels near Damascus. 1,400 are reported dead, including several hundred children.

UN reaction: investigation, report not issued yet; UN officials say report will only determine IF chemical weapons were used, not who was responsible for their use
US reaction: calls for attacks against the ruling regime

What lesson can we learn from this?

When chemical weapons are used in a way that furthers US interests, it’s fine. If not, well, obviously we must bomb them.

The Americans I’ve talked to in the last week overwhelmingly do not support US military intervention in Syria, chemical weapon use or not. They say almost the same thing: “Aren’t we already fighting 2 wars?”  The ones that support US intervention also say nearly the same thing: “Assad must be punished for using chemical weapons.” Where was this desire for justice or punishment when it was Saddam Hussein killing Kurds & Iranians?  Nobody seemed to give a shit back then.

I find it very interesting that the same politicians (Obama, Pelosi, Kerry, Schakowsky) who not only opposed the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan but also contributed mightily to the budgetary clusterfuck that led to sequestration are the ones supporting the idea that we spend even more money & possibly more American lives by getting militarily involved in Syria.

We barely have enough money to run this country, but the president wants to start dumping a shitload of money into a THIRD war?

I’ve supported President Obama on some of the things he’s tried to accomplish in his time as our nation’s leader, but I’ve got to draw a red line on sending our troops after Syria. It might start with smart bombs and cruise missiles, but it’s not beyond the realm of imagination that those things can easily be followed by enforcing no-fly zones, advisors & later, troops on the ground.  It’s happened before.

I also find it very interesting & more than a little suspicious that many of the celebrities that have been quite outspoken against the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan haven’t said a goddam word about the prospect of war in Syria. I’m talking about Martin Sheen, Danny Glover, Madonna, Sean Penn, Martin Scorsese, Dustin Hoffman, George Clooney, Janeane Garofalo, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore, Tim Robbins, Andy Serkis, Kim Basinger, Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Samuel L Jackson, Richard Gere, Jessica Lange, Natalie Maines, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen & more. They raised a hue & cry about going to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they’re keeping their mouths shut about going to war in Syria.

Maybe, like many Americans, they’re just sick & fucking tired of talking about war.

get in there and hurt somebody

I was just looking through a list of wars the US has been actively involved in, dating back to the 1st shots of the American Revolution in 1774. In those 239 years, we’ve been at war somewhere here or there for 176 years, including dozens of wars against native American Indian tribes throughout most of the 1800s. Even during the devastating Civil War, the US Army kept fighting the Indians.

I wonder what the stats are for other countries in their 1st 240 years of existence, or even the last 240 years of their existence.

Looking at the wars fought by the Roman Republic in the 239 years between 351*-112 BC, Rome was at war for a total of 99 years. In the last 239 years of the Roman Empire (155-394** AD), Rome was in an active state of war (or civil war) for 115 years. I think we can all agree that Rome certainly meddled in the affairs of the nations/tribes surrounding it, so, like the USA, there was certainly military action going on in other years, but I’m talking about active, publicly declared wars of some sort.

To recap: USA is 239 years old & has been at war for 176 of them. The beginning & ending 239 years of the Roman Republic/Empire, Rome was at war for 99/115 years respectively.

I suppose you can balance that out by looking at Napoleon, who reigned for 19 years (1796-1815, 1st as a member of the Directory & later as Emperor) & was only not at war during 1803, 1810-11 & during his exile on Elba from May 1814 to February 1815 – let’s call that 1 year. During 19 years of rule, then, Napoleon was actively at war with somebody for 15 years. That’s a mighty percentage.

What, exactly, is my point?  I don’t know, exactly, except to say that for the first time in a long time, I think it’s time that the US stop dropping bombs on the people of some other nation simply because we don’t like what they do to their own people. Yes, if it did indeed happen, it is reprehensible that Bashar al-Assad, the leader of Syria, used sarin gas on the rebels that have risen against him.

It was less than 100 years ago that many of the major civilized nations of the west – England, France, Germany, Austria, Russia and the United States – were using chemical weapons against each other with enthusiasm. Oh, it started innocently enough with tear gas, which police forces & militaries around the world continue to use to pacify crowds. It went on from there, though, to xylyl bromide, chlorine (produced by the German company BASF, which is still in manufacturing today), phosgene (invented by French scientists & responsible for most of the gas-related deaths in the war), a nifty blend of chlorine AND phosgene, and, of course, mustard gas, which wasn’t really meant to kill many people (and didn’t) but rather as a way to make the battlefield (or at least the enemy’s trenches) uninhabitable.

Chemical weapons, though universally recognized as horrific, remained in vogue in military circles worldwide throughout the 1920s, but haven’t really been used in large-scale combat since 1925, when most WW1 combatants (not the US, though) signed the first treaty banning the use of such weapons. The US didn’t sign the Geneva Protocol until the 1970s. Note that the GC only bans the USE of chemical weapons – not the creation or stockpiling of such weapons.  The last country to use chemical weapons during a war in a big way was Iraq, which used mustard & other gasses to kill or wound about 100,000 of Iran’s forces.

In between, of course, was Germany again, using Zyklon B to gas into oblivion millions of European Jews during WW2, but I think we can all agree that doesn’t really count as combat.

The USA is still the only nation in the world to have used the entire suite of NBC weapons – nuclear, biological & chemical – to kill its enemies. While our leaders have promised not to use chemical or biological weapons in the future, that doesn’t stop them from continuing to manufacture and stockpile them.  It takes a pretty sturdy soap box to support you in condemning any government from using chemical weapons when you yourself produce tons of them every year.

None of this makes it right for Assad to attack his own people with chemical weapons (if, indeed, he did) – but is it any more right for the US to drop bombs on Syria as “punishment” for his having done so?  My mother always told me that “two wrongs don’t make a right” (even though three lefts do), so I’m having a hard time reconciling that the USA is making plans to spank Syria for gassing its own people.

As many people have pointed out, the revolution in Syria has cost at least 100,000 lives so far. Why is the most recent 1,000 of them, though killed by sarin gas, the ones that finally “demand” action from anywhere else in the world?

I think it’s time for the US to stop acting like the world’s police force and stick to fixing things in its own back yard.  With an active war going on in Afghanistan (because, you know, previous wars involving Alexander the Great, the Mongols, the Mughals, the British & the Soviet Union all turned out so spectacularly) and another one in Iraq mostly winding down, is the US just so bored that it’s time to start another war that’s going to cost billions of dollars & possibly thousands of lives?  They SAY “no boots on the ground” now, but things hardly ever stay that way.

Our infrastructure is crumbling. Our health care costs are out of control. Our education system is in shambles.  Our leaders are corrupt.  Our businesses are robbing us blind.  Our borders are porous.  Our atmosphere is disintegrating.  Our power grid is being pushed to capacity.  We have 100s of 1000s of people in this country that are unemployed, hungry or homeless. How about instead of throwing expensive weapons at another nation, we dump some of that money into fixing problems here in the United States?

I think the underlying reason we don’t pay more attention to our own problems is because it’s easier to point the self-righteous finger of judgment at the actions and ideas of others than it is to examine the gaping holes in our own system.

* 351 BC saw the end of the war between the Roman Republic & the Tarquinii, Falerii & Caere – while it’s debatable as to when the Roman Republic can first be considered an empire, there is NO DOUBT that after 351 BC (the end of this 8-year war), the Romans were the dominant power in the region.

** 394 AD wasn’t the end-end of the Roman Empire, but with the end of the last of the real Roman Civil Wars in this year, it can easily be identified as a clear end-point for the Romans despite another 100+ years of the barbarian tribes of Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East & Northern Africa picking apart the remnants of the empire.